Psychedelics could transform mental health with a side effect of creative ideas.
Psychedelics and art go way back. Shamans with handfuls of mushrooms are part of a collection of 14000-year-old cave paintings. Medicine songs from traditions around the world are still sung today.
In modern times psychedelics are credited with sparking psychedelic rock, novel visual art, edgy writing, and a culture that questioned status quo ideologies. But it wasn’t only hippies and artists.
In the 60s, Noble Prize-winning scientists also experimented with their consciousness. Francis Crick, part of the team to discover the structure of DNA, used LSD. So did theoretical physicist Richard Feynman who contributed to quantum mechanics and the Manhattan project.
Even after prohibition, psychedelics have continued to influence music, visual art, and science. Underground rave culture and festivals produced previously unimaginable gluttony of psychedelic soundscapes, and Alex Grey founded the visionary art movement.
Tech entrepreneurs acknowledged psychedelics as powerful influences, and scientist Dr. Kary Banks Mullis famously said:
“Would I have invented PCR if I hadn’t taken LSD? I seriously doubt it. I could sit on a DNA molecule and watch the polymers go by. I learnt that partly on psychedelic drugs.”
What Do Psychedelics Do?
Most of the news about psychedelic therapy is about curing depression, addiction, or other mental health conditions. Psychedelics are still contributing to scientific discoveries, but not through the direct experience of taking them. Or at least very few are talking about it openly.
And with good reason. Psychedelics are still illegal, and scientists need good reputations and tidy results to keep doing their research. The FDA won’t be impressed by trip reports about DMT entities or wild inventions, only hard data.
Even before the journey towards mainstream acceptance, traditional indigenous cultures, have been, and still are critical of the use of psychedelics outside of carefully directed use.
Yet, even within these guidelines, it seems a side effect of psychedelics has always been creative output for some.
Take a look at mushroom idols or ayahuasca textiles. The paintings of Peruvian shaman Pablo Amaringo are both beautiful and deeply meaningful for those that relate to the ayahuasca visions he painted. This merging of expressing the psychedelic experience creatively and meaningfully is part of psychedelic culture.
What Does it Mean to Be Creative?
However, for the Western rational mind, grasping whether or not psychedelics increase creativity is challenging. While it might seem intuitive, simply defining and measuring creativity is subjective and not very standardized.
One popular definition used by those studying creativity is divergent thinking. In a nutshell, divergent is an open-ended way of thinking that considers many possible solutions and connections instead of focusing on a single outcome.
Divergent thinking has been linked to psychedelics in research, but a standardized neurological explanation is tricky. Psychedelics do many things to the brain. Creativity, too, is a combination of many processes in the brain.
Psychedelics, in particular, have a way of creating novel sights and reframing the meanings of situations, which is why they are so powerful for shifting people in mental health spirals. This meaning-making mechanism with a highly symbolic lens might show how fresh perspectives can also influence creative output.
How Creativity From Psychedelics Might Work
Lead researcher from the Imperial College of London, Dr. Robin Carhartt Harris, framed sums it up with his statement:
“the brain on psychedelics is free and unconstrained, like that of an infant”
Dr. Carhartt Harris created the Entropic Brain Theory, which emphasizes the many novel connections between areas of the brain that don’t usually communicate during everyday sober life.
These new connections we have never before experienced could trigger new ways of seeing the world, ourselves, and novel ideas happen in the wake of such experiences.
Steve Jobs, the creator of Apple, defined creativity as simply connecting things not obvious to others. Jobs famously played chess on acid in university and stated that he could never be understood entirely by people who had never taken psychedelics.
Divergent or lateral thinking has also been explicitly recorded in people participating in ayahuasca ceremonies. This type of process is also connected to our ability to adapt not only to different ideas but also to our internal world of emotions. It seems possible that the healing psychedelics provide cannot be separated from creative impulses.
Creativity Research and The Nature of Psychedelics
Dr. James Fadiman, the author of the Psychedelic Explorers Guide, completed research in the 70s to determine how a light dose of mescaline affected certain creative professionals.
He brought together architects, engineers, designers together, along with a problem each had been trying to solve. After the peak of their mescaline, they sat down to try creative solutions to the professional problem they had brought.
Most professionals found solutions to their ideas that were accepted by their clients or led to future projects. A group survey after the fact also revealed that 25% felt mescaline helped them find a solution.
However, 20% of the professionals in the study felt that during their trip, they could not focus on their creative problem and felt that matters in their personal life needed to be dealt with instead.
Psychedelics are kind of tricky. We can set specific intentions and sometimes achieve extraordinary results, but other times they have another plan for us. I’ve often tripped with what I had assumed was a meaningful intention, only to be transfixed on some new knowledge only a few hours later.
No Free Rides
A nice rule of thumb is that psychedelics generally are going to “show us what is already there.” What we think we want can easily be avoidance of issues we may not be consciously aware of.
Psychedelics dig these things up. It’s their superpower, and they are not only here so we can innovate our business or make awesome music. It seems psychedelic experience can certainly stimulate creative impulses, the same mechanism creating new connections could also be the trigger for huge personal shifts. As far as we know, the two cannot be separated.
It’s also important to note that while there is no shortage of stories about psychedelics changing lives, I’m not aware of anyone claiming that psychedelics alone were the key to success.
All of the people I mentioned in this article who credited inspiration to psychedelics are highly skilled, motivated individuals in their everyday lives. Psychedelics can give a glimpse of what is possible, but they are not a bypass surgery for creativity.
The ability to hone one’s craft and execute ideas with sober follow-through is the real trick, just like integrating a healing psychedelic journey.